The term “working musician” (as in making a living at it) is not common in Chattanooga. For the most part, local musicians who play in bands at clubs do so part-time, toiling at day jobs while awaiting their big break or simply fulfilling a fantasy by being in a band that’s paid to play one night a week.
But there is a sizeable group of musicians here who truly deserve the title. They are the professional musicians of the Chattanooga Symphony who have spent their lives mastering their instruments while mostly existing in relative obscurity as members of a symphonic orchestra which is chiefly represented by its conductor.
Unlike their counterparts in popular music, fame is not the guiding star for these musicians. Rather, it is simply the opportunity to play a form of music that, while revered, is constantly threatened by the budget woes that increasingly plague the arts everywhere.
In that respect, life as a “working classical musician” is not unlike that of professional athletes. There is a defined season of play, and while your specific role is valued, you must be a team player. Despite your talent, your position in the organization is never certain and competition is fierce. Ego and passions run high, but a symphony is nothing if not a team, its sound and performance depend on, well, a symphony of players. These musicians, like their major league counterparts, are often obligated to play an additional role as a community ambassador and, when you are not in a top-tier market, finances are almost always a concern. You must wear a uniform (of sorts)—in this case formal wear, which is expensive and less than comfortable for some—and maintain a sense of decorum. Like athletes, common folk tend to hold classical musicians to a higher standard.
Still, it is a life these musicians sacrifice all else for. For a glimpse behind the gilded curtains of the Tivoli Theatre, home of the Chattanooga Symphony, we recently talked with two of the orchestra’s veteran musicians to find out what it’s like to hold a much sought-after position with a professional symphony.
Gordon James and Lisa Dempsey occupy pivotal chairs within the CSO and are both seasoned and respected masters of their respective instruments. James holds the principal horn position and has played with CSO since 1987. Dempsey is a violinist and associate concertmaster who took her chair with the symphony in 1998.
When we meet a few days before the CSO’s season opener, both are dressed casually and are preparing for a series of rehearsals prior to donning formal attire and taking their chairs on the Tivoli stage.
Coming back to the Tivoli is familiar, says James, but not necessarily easy. “It’s like going back to school,” he says. “We don’t work in the summer and haven’t played so much. Many people don’t realize that we don’t have a lot of rehearsal time.”
Indeed, the curtain is almost ready to rise, and while its members have practiced the music on their own, they will have only four rehearsals across three days as a unit.
The orchestra is also beginning only its second season under new conductor Kayoko Dan, the youthful violinist who succeeded Bob Bernhardt as conductor and musical director of the CSO last year. Dan’s role as a leader is crucial, both affirm. As the first woman (and Asian-American) to hold the post, Dan is much more than an oft-photographed figurehead wielding a baton. Her musical choices and direction affect the entire organization.
“She’s young, but she’s doing fine,” James says. “She’s growing as time goes by and coming into her own at the podium.”